For many, the sibling relationship is the longest lifetime relationship, lasting decades longer than parent-child or spousal relationships.
This lifelong history of shared family experiences can influence whether sibling relationships are characterized by intimacy and closeness or rivalry and distance. Sibling experiences can contribute positively or negatively to how children think about themselves and their social or emotional adjustment. Aidan McGee, 19, is 18 months younger than his sister. “She looked out for me and even talked for me when we were really little,” he says of his sister. “When we were in high school, she would give me rides before I got my license. Later, our parents were more protective of her and gave me more independence just because she was a girl and I was a boy.”
McGee’s comments highlight the view that perceptions of unfair parenting, age and gender differences can influence sibling relationships.
Different, But Equal
As early as toddlerhood, children may recognize parents’ “fair” and “unfair” treatment between siblings. Parents’ unequal treatment of siblings can strain already competitive sibling relationships, increase sibling conflict and children’s disruptive negative attention seeking behavior.
Children who feel that parents treat siblings unequally perceive the family environment differently. This view can weaken the important sibling bond of shared family history and threaten sibling relationship quality across time.
However, equal parenting is not always an option—age, gender, personality and responsibility characteristics sometimes necessitate different parenting among siblings. Parents should take heart: If siblings perceive parental treatment as “fair,” despite being different, it may actually promote their sense of uniqueness and individuality, thereby decreasing sibling conflict.
Siblings Across Development
The closeness and quality of sibling relationships changes across child development. In early childhood, same gender siblings may share more interests and similarities, which can serve, in equal amounts, to promote closeness or competition. While boy-girl sibling pairs may share fewer commonalities in early childhood, research suggests that by late adolescence their relationship may be stronger than gender matched sibling pairs. However, regardless of gender similarity, siblings may drift apart during early and middle adolescence when youth focus on developing autonomy from the family through focus on friendship and early romantic relationships.
Sibling Conflict: The Good and Bad
Sibling relationships are often a child’s first interpersonal experience with an age-mate. Children can internalize these early relational experiences as a model for interacting with friends and peers throughout life. Siblings whose relationships are characterized by aggression and conflict may transfer these same poor social skills into relationships with friends.In contrast, children who have few or poor quality friendships may be protected from negative adjustment, such as depression, anxiety, or social isolation, by supportive siblings. Supportive siblings also protect each other from negative adjustment during times of family stress, such as parental divorce or relocation.
Siblings with Special Needs
Siblings of children with special needs (mental or physical illness) experience relationship and responsibility challenges different from healthy sibling pairs. Donald Meyer and Patricia Vadasy, authors of “Living With a Brother or Sister with Special Needs: A Book for Sibs,” note that healthy siblings may develop increased patience, acceptance of difference, understanding and maturity while concurrently feeling negative emotions of worry, embarrassment, anger, guilt or resentment. Particularly as healthy siblings enter adolescence and early adulthood, when they begin to recognize parental mortality and consider their future, concerns over their responsibility for long-term care of their special-needs sibling emerge. Parents can decrease stress for the healthy sibling by actively involving them in conversations regarding planning and expectations for long-term care of their brother or sister.
By// Erin Lanphier, Ph.D